There is a genocide happening as I write this.
It’s inevitable that I begin this way—there are actually multiple genocides happening as I write this—but the loudest one is playing out in our phones as the illegitimate state of Israel massacres the Palestinian people. Tens of thousands of martyrs call on the name of God as their world is bombed around them. All wars are fought with stories—I can’t look at a television because the media is scrambling with lies, disseminating these narratives as fast and as wide as they can. Around the world, citizens of our violent states are swarming the streets in protest, and I think that is a better, truer story—that people of the world did not stand by and do nothing in the face of atrocity, while these children were killed, while entire lineages were slaughtered, while hospitals were bombed and journalists assassinated, while our governments sent money to keep it going.
We are watching young people in Gaza report their lives and deaths over social media while Israel tries to destroy their connection to the outside world so that their stories can die with them. I could tell you a story about the propaganda spread by those who wish Palestinians dead. I could tell you the rebuttals made in response and we could argue over figures and facts, fall into a tangled story that is, in the end, a distraction from the terrible thing that is happening. True things are true whether we want to look at them or not. I have my own memories: I remember what it’s like to pass multiple bodies heaped at the side of the road, to see a dead person float in floodwater, bloated. I remember what it all smells like after many days.
I refuse to debate when twenty thousand corpses lie at our feet.
I’ll tell you a different story instead.***
When I turned thirty-five, it felt like I had finally arrived at myself. It wasn’t particularly peaceful, but it did feel like I could trust my own mind at last. I finally had clarity—brilliant, blinding clarity. I knew who I was. I knew what I could offer the world and what, despite my desires, I could not. This process was slow. It took months, endless sessions of trauma therapy, and by the time I turned thirty-six, my God, it had been tested. I had faltered, I had rallied, I had sobbed and screamed and been hunted in nightmares, but the clarity kept burning through me until I rang like shocked crystal. Here’s what I learned:
The best thing I can do is to tell stories and make art, and that is enough. Quite frankly, I could have stopped my career after my first book and that would’ve been enough. When the world burns, my methods do not change because the world has always been burning, enough for me to want to die to get away from it. I have always been telling stories; I have always been making art. In multiple interviews over several years, I’ve said I want this world to burn to the ground so something better can be bent into its place. I’ve always meant it. This horror has been commonplace, yet we witness it with fresh grief each time because commonplace doesn’t and should never mean acceptable.
So I tell stories about the burning, about the imperfect phoenix afterward, and about freedom and love. These stories are uncomfortable; they anger people who believe in conformity, they get my books banned and teachers threatened for assigning these stories to their students. But I believe that freedom starts between us, in the choices we make, like when someone picks up happiness, when we refuse to cave to abusive patterns of expected behavior, even at the risk of being ostracized by family and society. I can write that into a romance novel and people scoff because it’s not literary, but then you see how it affects readers, whether it incenses them to a fury or brings them to tears. You realize how deeply people feel about freedom when someone else is taking it and they feel like they can’t, or what it means to a reader when someone whispers through a page—I see you and I know what it cost you to become this. My point is, there is nothing a story can’t do. You can bend a whole new world with stories and that is an enormous threat to those who want this terrible world and its associated structures to stand.
In my work, I am centered on the premise that our indigenous realities are real, true, and valid. I live at this center, I write and paint and make music from this center. I refuse to move, and in the vein of Toni Morrison, I wait for the world to move over. This is perhaps the most powerful story I can tell with my life, to claim the indigenous center and let that red earth twist around my ankles, dragging my tarsal bones into the warm soil, digging in and down until I am the earth and it is me and it no longer matters that a white man with a gun ever looked upon us.
It is our indigenous stories that will set us free and so I have turned my life into one—centering in spirit, being clear with my work and my language around myself, that I am an ọgbanje, the child of an Igbo deity, and therefore a deity as well. I’ve written books about this, seminal texts that help other people reclaim their own indigenous centers. I watch it spread like quickfire as we learn new eyes, as we hold them in our hands coated in old blood and shove them into our faces. When we see each other, we are all regenerated. We are so ancient; they should be terrified of us.
Here is another story.***
In a Lagos penthouse in Old Ikoyi, light spills out of glass doors and into a lush terrace filled with people and voices. The guests lounge on carved wooden chairs and the night is hot, ice singing quietly in their glasses under the loud hum of overlapping chatter. People are still dying across the world and people are always dying, suffering down the road, in the water, under a bridge. I stand in Lagos now and decades ago, people stood here untouched by war, having drinks while my grandfather was bombed in his village during the Biafran genocide, chatting and laughing while he died there, before I was born. Is being alive inevitably being complicit? Sometimes, when the despair creeps in, I wonder if the only acceptable solidarity is death. The new clarity washes that away—I’ve survived too many suicide attempts to let this world grind me into nonexistence again. The work continues. Life continues, unrelenting and insistent. My friend, the writer Ann Daramola says—“Somebody still has to make breakfast the morning after the world ends.”
I stand against a large clay pot and look out at the mint growing in garden boxes hanging off the terrace. Around the corner, red bell peppers darken on their stems. We are at ÌTÀN, a test kitchen run by my friend Chef Michael Elégbèdé, another storyteller doing things with a world. Weeks before, the two of us had sat in my art studio in Tribeca and talked about mythology, if it means something real or something made up, about whose stories are considered fictional and whose are considered sacred. The first time I ate at ÌTÀN, he told me a story about a guest’s discomfort with the clay plates he serves the food on, because the vessels were too close to those used to make offerings to the gods. Pagan Yorùbá things, you see, the blasphemous indigenous showing up in the last place they expected—a pinnacle of fine dining by an acclaimed chef trained in the West. Chef Elégbèdé is nothing if not deliberate with the centers he has chosen for the world he is bending, the story he is telling.
As the dinner starts, we pour in from the terrace and find our seats along the enormous table that stretches through the penthouse space—a tree yawned in half and drowned in lacquer, smooth grain and natural edges. Chef Elégbèdé stands where we can all see him, dressed in black and with bronze carvings on his braided locs, stainless steel tools tucked into a pocket on his sleeve. He tells us how the word ìtàn means story or history and introduces us to the current menu, based on Yoruba mythology. The nine courses we’re about to be served are accompanied by a soundscape of oríkì and stories about the orisha. We are in an exhibition, eating edible art, drinking out of clay cups made in Kaduna. The earthenware is cool against my fingers like it was centuries ago. Our menu is given to us page by page, perforated paper that we turn into a book, a story we can take to remember. Before the dinner, I ask Michael what story he is telling with ÌTÀN.
“One where our worlds matter,” he replies.
“Don’t they matter now?” I ask.
“They’ve been neglected,” he points out. “We’ve been conditioned to think we’re better off without them.”
He returns to work and I sit there, holding the sudden grief of that simple truth in my hands. We’ve been conditioned to think we’re better off without them—without our indigenous realities, without our gods, without our values and stories. The scale of the loss never fails to stagger me, all that has been ripped away, all the bullshit that was handed to us in the name of colonialism. They destroyed our cities, killed and sold us in swathes, shoved their reality down our throats with guns and blood, fracturing our teeth, and then they told us there was nothing worth turning back for. Even now, decades after, hundreds of millions of us still believe them.
So, this is the work—everyone who uses art and food and stories to gently turn us back, over and over again. Here is the world that was stolen from us. We can bend it into today, fold it into the contemporary, we are not seized in the past. It will taste like ÌTÀN, like Abakaliki rice steamed in water lily leaves, cooked by the scarred hands of a storyteller, like smoked guinea fowl inside an eggshell with the apples from Gombe and a scent leaf oil. It will sound like the rain that starts to fall as Chef Elégbèdé introduces Yemaya’s course, and the silence as the rain stops with his voice. It will smell like udara and pineapple, smoked ogogoro and passionfruit, white hibiscus and ginger. It will feel like home.***
This is the last story. It is a short one.
I used to be consumed by despair. The world was always too loud with its suffering, seemingly pointless, and I was always haunted by the knowledge that no amount of beauty or joy could justify a fraction of the horrors inflicted on the most vulnerable of us in the name of greed and capitalism and white supremacy. I tried to die multiple times so I could escape this hell I had been born into, this insane dystopia. I failed every time, until it became clear that I would always fail.
My assignment from God is to live. To live. Amidst the death and the repugnant atrocities, without dying or trying to die, with the pain and the betrayal of my own flesh, with the joy of love and the grief of loss. To live and to witness and to do my job, because this is what it means to have a human experience in this world—the sky slashing pink sunsets over rubble, laughter continuing, beauty refusing to stop for endless deaths, the world marching on. I know it is grotesque, but it is also just true.
I have learned that despair and apathy are also stories, ones that impair our ability to worldbend, ones that serve our oppressors, not us. So we must become hunters, tracking down other stories to counter these insidious ones. We who want a better world, we learn to start at home, in our families and relationships and communities. The revolution begins in spirit. None of us can save anyone alone. We simply do our best, within our capacity so we can stay alive to do our best another day. We try and we live, we witness and we grieve, and together, we bend another world into being, slowly but with bloodstained certainty. It is coming, just over the hill.
I can hear it breathing.